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An Olympian choice of contrasting styles in election for London’s mayor

- Associated Press - Sunday, April 15, 2012

LONDON — One sports an unruly blond mop, spouts Latin aphorisms and loves to ride his bicycle. The other is a neat, newt-loving socialist who prefers to travel by subway.

Their contest is an Olympic-size grudge match.

Meet Boris and Ken - hometown celebrities known universally by their first names.

When the 2012 London Games open on July 27, one of them will stand before billions of television viewers as mayor of the host city.

Incumbent Boris Johnson warns that it had better be him and not Ken Livingstone - his predecessor, intense rival and would-be successor.

"Obviously, it's an eventuality that I try not to contemplate," Mr. Johnson said during a break in campaigning for London's May 3 mayoral election. "And I'm working very hard to make sure that I'm spared by the electoral reaper."

Whoever wins, London's next mayor will be a larger-than-life figure whose gaffes and idiosyncrasies would have sunk a less confident politician. The winner will oversee a world-class city of 8 million people and a $22 billion budget.

Mr. Johnson, a Conservative, hopes to win a second four-year term, while and Mr. Livingstone, London's mayor from 2000 to 2008, is from Labor - but both transcend the parties they nominally represent.

London calling

Mr. Livingstone has the greater London ties. He was born and raised in the city, speaks with a nasal cockney accent and has been prominent in local politics since the 1970s.

Mr. Johnson, with his rhetorical flourishes and unmistakable shock of hair, is a more quintessentially British character: the erudite upper-class buffoon.

"Boris reeks of the notion of British character for a nation that's self-identified as liking eccentrics and people who are a bit out of the ordinary," said Tony Travers, a specialist in local government at the London School of Economics. "Ken is more technocratic - looking and in reality."

Both men have tied their political fortunes, in part, to the Olympic Games: Mr. Livingstone helped lead the bid that brought the event to London. Mr. Johnson has presided over four years of preparation for the July 27-Aug. 12 extravaganza.

Mr. Livingstone says the Olympics already have proved their worth by transforming a grim, postindustrial patch of East London into the 500-acre Olympic Park.

"As far as I'm concerned, the benefits of the Olympics - we've had those already," he said

Mr. Johnson, who has had to handle the logistics of mounting the games, also stresses its legacy of thousands of new jobs and homes. And he is keen to reassure Londoners, and visitors, that he is on top of the two biggest potential nightmares: security and transport.

And if London's overburdened public transport system seizes up under the strain of so many visitors, he said, "we think people will get the point, they'll manage ... have a beer or whatever it is and absorb the impact."

Goofs and gaffes

That is the typical insouciance from Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, 47, who was born in New York and is the great-grandson of Turkish journalist and government minister Ali Kemal.

Mr. Johnson attended the elite boarding school Eton College and studied classics at Oxford University, where he was - along with Prime Minister David Cameron - a member of a rowdy, aristocratic drinking-and-dining society called the Bullingdon Club.

A journalist who was a member of Parliament from 2001 to 2008, Mr. Johnson has combined politics with book writing and frequent television appearances, cultivating an affable persona that has been undermined by periodic gaffes.

The most infamous came when he referred to members of the commonwealth as "picaninnies," a derogatory term for black people, and likened his party's internal conflicts "to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing."

In both cases he apologized. Mr. Johnson largely has been able to pass off such stumbles as signs of his unpolished authenticity. Opponents say they are evidence of bigotry at worst, and at best callousness or distraction - Mr. Livingstone calls Mr. Johnson a "part-time mayor" with too many outside interests.

Mr. Livingstone, 66, has concentrated on London politics for decades. He led London's local authority during the 1980s until it was abolished by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Nicknamed "Red Ken," he became famous for two things - left-wing views and raising great crested newts.

As mayor, Mr. Livingstone gained praise with his response to the 2005 London transit bombings that killed 52 people and for introducing a traffic-busting "congestion charge" to drive into the city center, a policy admired by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, among others.

His views on international issues are more controversial. Mr. Livingstone once called President George W. Bush "the greatest threat to life on this planet," welcomed hard-line Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London, and was suspended from his post for a month after comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Mr. Livingstone denies anti-Semitism, but his words have alienated many Jewish voters.

Both men also are known for their busy private lives. Mr. Livingstone has five children with three women, while Mr. Johnson was once fired from a Conservative post for lying about an extramarital affair.

They seem to have a visceral animosity, getting into a shouting match in an elevator after a recent radio debate, with Mr. Johnson repeatedly calling his rival an "[expletive] liar" for claims about Mr. Johnson's tax status.

Both ended up publishing their tax records: $2.7 million over four years for Mr. Johnson; $540,000 for Mr. Livingstone.

Opinion polls give Mr. Johnson a slight edge but indicate a close race."

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